Organic Agriculture and
America's Rural Crisis

I've lived in the country most of my adult life, have been a farm worker and have also farmed commercially on a small scale. As an organic farm inspector from Portland, Oregon, where I also help manage a farmers' market, I have one foot in the city and the other in farm country. So I'm especially convinced of the need for city and suburban people -- who are the vast majority of North America's population -- to know more about farms and farming. I applaud your correspondent A.V. Krebs and others who are trying to build bridges so that Americans can better understand the lives of the farmers and farm workers who produce our food.

In an article headlined "Murdering the Family Farm" (2/1/00 PP) Mr. Krebs outlines some of the causes of the desperation that family farmers are experiencing. Much of what he says is certainly true -- corporations, mega-farms, processors and banks are squeezing more and more family farms out of business. Prices for grains, livestock and other farm products are so low that they do not pay the cost of farming let alone leave anything for farmers to live on. Suicides among farmers are on the rise. A few farm people have even joined the ranks of the militias or the so-called "wise use" movement as they look for someone to blame for the downward spiral of troubles they face.

I think, however, that Mr. Krebs is wrong when he blames environmentalists for contributing to the problems farm communities face. Krebs quotes author Joel Dyer saying that armchair "pseudoenvironmentalists" have put "thousands of rural people ... out of work with impractical environmental legislation dreamed up by urban activists who lack practical knowledge of rural life."

Mr. Krebs doesn't spell out what legislation Dyer is referring to here, but presumably the reference is to the laws which supposedly regulate pesticides. In fact the environmental groups that advocate for stronger pesticide laws (such as the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) and the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP) have strong farm and rural connections. Unfortunately these groups have had very limited success in achieving effective pesticide regulation. Every year American farmers apply more and more chemical pesticides, and for decades every effort toward reducing pesticide use has been stymied by powerful chemical companies and their lobbyists who direct huge payoffs to both Republican and Democratic politicians, particularly those from farm states. As a result, U.S. pesticide laws and regulations are notoriously weak and ineffective, and the food Americans eat continues to be tainted with residues of dangerous pesticides. These pesticides also contaminate our soil, air, and water, especially in agricultural areas.

While efforts to regulate pesticides in U.S. agriculture have been a dismal failure, there is a viable, practical solution to many of the problems American farmers face: In many parts of North America organic agriculture has made substantial progress toward revitalizing rural communities. Currently about five per cent of North America's farms are organic, and organic products account for a similar percentage of farm products sold.

In the U.S., organic agriculture is expanding, while conventional agriculture is in decline or at best stagnant. But the organic method of farming is still viewed with suspicion by many U.S. farmers who are used to getting advice from chemical company salespeople or from university agriculture departments that are heavily endowed and influenced by chemical companies and bio-engineering firms.

Unfortunately most organic certifiers and other pro-organic organizations don't have well-developed programs for encouraging conventional farmers to make the transition from chemical to organic farming. As a result many farmers don't have the information they need to evaluate whether going organic makes sense for them. USDA's Coop Extension Service should be encouraging the transition to organics, but it is not. In the entire USDA bureaucracy there is only one extension agent who is a qualified expert in organic ag (predictably, he's located in Santa Cruz, Calif.)

Farming is hard work, and in many cases farming organically is even harder. Weeds, harmful insects, fungi and other pests must be monitored and managed much more painstakingly, while beneficial insects and soil organisms are encouraged. Organic growers must keep up with research about alternative methods of pest control and apply the results on their farms. They must learn to control pests using an "ecosystem" approach that requires patience because sometimes it takes several years to produce satisfactory results. Even more important, organic farmers must care for and enrich their soil with organic matter and non-chemical sources of the nutrients their crops require, and this is often much more labor intensive than the yearly applications of chemical fertilizers that conventional farmers use.

But organic agriculture is viable and practical for most crops, and farmers who are motivated can, without too much trouble, find the information and resources they need to successfully transition most farm operations--grains, vegetables, livestock, eggs, herbs, etc. -- to the organic method.

More must be done to convince conventional farmers to go organic. Some of this encouragement should come from organic certifiers and others in the business of processing, selling and promoting organics. Consumers can also play a role by letting grocery store produce managers and farmers they meet at farmers' markets and farmstands know that they want certified organic produce. And publications, including the Progressive Populist, can do more by considering the growth and development of organic agriculture and its potential for helping American farms and farmers out of the desperate financial and personal circumstances in which so many of them are trapped.

Organic agriculture certainly can use more friends and advocates at a time when disturbing trends threaten the integrity of the organic movement. The most important of these is the effort by large corporations to take over organic agriculture. General Mills is already the largest buyer of organic grains in the world. Other corporate giants, including Amway and even Disney, are involved in what some people insist on calling "the organic industry". If we don't get these corporate gorillas out of organics, we'll see the idealism that has always characterized organics replaced by the same trends that are destroying conventional family farming: control by brokers, processors, banks and middlemen, plus consolidation and the "get big or get out" mentality. Informed consumers will have to insist on grassroots control of organics by family farmers and family farm coops, not massive food broker-marketers and multinationals.

Organics also should resolve to supply local and regional markets first. Too much of the growth in organics is fueled by long-distance international commerce in export commodities. In poor countries an emphasis on export crops -- even if they are organic -- often displaces basic food crops, and the result is increased poverty and malnutrition. Organic agriculture needs to come to grips with this ethical dilemma and put more emphasis on growing food for local consumption.

Also, if they are to realize their potential, organic foods must not be a luxury that is beyond the reach of most buyers. As organic agriculture has grown, retail prices have become more reasonable. Because organic food is higher quality, healthier food, it will continue to fetch somewhat higher prices than conventional produce. But if its market share is to keep on growing, organic produce must be affordable. America should not be a place where some people can afford food that's fresh and healthy and others have to settle for less.

We should all do what we can to strengthen the connections between farm communities and consumers. This work should include supporting a transition to organics in all sectors of U.S. agriculture and in agriculture throughout the world. Converting agriculture to the organic method can certainly give us healthier food and a healthier environment. And in my opinion, only a careful and responsible transition to organics can also ensure a prosperous, stable and healthy future for the farms and rural communities that nurture and sustain us all.

Portland, Oregon

A.V. Krebs responds: While I cannot speak for Joel Dyer as to his conception of armchair "pseudoenvironmentalists," I would not think from my own long-time personal knowledge of the excellent work that organizations like NCAMP and NCAP do in working with family farmers in attempting to rid the environment of dangerous chemical poisons, that he nor I would ever view such organizations as enemies of the family farmer. Rather, I believe what he is referring to, and which I would very much agree, are those environmental groups with large urban constituencies who have shown repeatedly a certain insensitivity to the serious economic problems created by corporate agribusiness that family farmers face in seeking to stay in agriculture while at the same time being responsible environmentalists. Such insensitivity, however, is not just unique to armchair "pseudoenvironmentalists," but is a malady that can also be seen in a public at large that knows not where their food comes from while at the same time believing it to be an infinite resource.

Vote Democratic

We agree on most issues, but I cannot disagree with you more when you seem to discourage people from voting the Democratic ticket ["The Road Less Travelled," 2/1/00 PP]. The next president will have an opportunity to appoint between 0 and 3 justices to the supreme court in the first term, up to 5 justices, if he is reelected.

We know what kind of justices G.W. would appoint: repeal Roe v. Wade, toughen laws against gays, weaken labor laws and do away with what's left of affirmative action, allow vouchers for religious schools and get prayer back into schools, at a minimum. Many of the Supreme Court decisions of the last few decades that are important to progressives, as opposed to the elite and religious nuts, were five-to-four decisions, so that even a single appointment could mean a watershed for our laws. No time to "send principled messages" by voting for someone like Nader, whom I respect and love, but the only "messages" pols listen to have the sound of cash; therefore, don't throw votes away on a symbolic candidate to help elect your insider trader, G.W. Bush.

Bush would also waste the budget surplus on taxcuts for the rich friends who are financing his campaign as they financed his various business ventures, failures of them all, until he persuaded the taxpayers of Arlington to build a new stadium for his Rangers and then make a bundle ($14.9 million) selling the team.

I do not suggest that Gore or Bradley are saints but then we don't elect them to sainthood, just to lead the country; provide healthcare to people who don't have insurance coverage, for starters. There is no doubt in my mind that if just all the people who lack healthcare would go to the polls, the Dems would be a shoo-in.

This is just a friendly reminder of what is at stake in this election, and that it might be a good idea to get out G.W.'s awful business record to show the "sound judgment" he wants people to believe he has and show him for the dishonest insider trader that he is, even though the SEC (appointed by his dad) found he did nothing wrong (while his dad was president. Surprise!) But here are the facts, allowing anyone to judge for him or herself:

June 22, 1990 G.W. sells over 200,000 shares of Harken stock for $4 a share while on the board and audit committee of the company.

June 30th: Harken closes its second quarter posting a $23 million loss.

August 20th: the loss is publically reported and shares drop to $2.38

There were other numerous irregularities -- to put it mildly -- in Bush's business career, but it would take too much time and space to recount them all.

Although his personal history tells us what kind of business man Bush was, more important is an article on today's New York Times, titled: "A Smooth Road to the Dead House" that shows what kind of governor he is. It says 1) Texas has no office of public defender; 2) lawyers for indigents get appointed by judges, usually with an eye to a "speedy and easy" trial (never mind whether we have the guilty or an innocent party). Some of these have been observed sleeping through the trial. 3) Bush vetoed a proposal by the legislature to institute a public defender's office.

Compassionate guy, hey?

Help us get the true record on G.W. out. The conventional press apparently has decided to give him a pass on a host of LEGITIMATE questions he chooses to shrug off as irrelevant and refuses to answer. The arrogance of this position alone shows how much respect he has for the people. It ought to be up to us to judge what is and what isn't relevant in a candidate's past.


La Jolla, California

Bush Seeks KKK Votes

George W. Bush is trying to present himself as the candidate of "compassionate conservatism." Well, there must be a faction of conservatives who are very uncompassionate whom he would like to get on his band-wagon. This was evident when he chose to speak at South Carolina's Bob Jones University where anti-Catholic bigotry is part of the curriculum.

Bob Jones University was founded in 1927 by Bob Jones, Sr., who said in 1928:

"I would rather see a saloon on every corner than a Catholic in the White House."

We are informed by the New York Times on February 10 that these words of hate were uttered by Bob Jones, Jr. in the 1980's:

"The papacy is the religion of Antichrist and is a satanic system."

In 1966, Bob Jones University gave an honorary doctorate to the Reverend Ian Paisley, who has embarrassed Presbyterians around the world with his anti-Catholic diatribes. According to occupied Ireland's most infamous champion of sectarian bigotry, the Catholic Church is "the mother of harlots and the abomination of the earth."

We must remember that this is the university that banned inter-racial dating and also threatens to arrest any homosexual alumnus who shows up on campus for a class reunion.

Remember also that Bush has refused to advise South Carolinians to retire the Confederate battle-flag to a museum of historical antiquities where it properly belongs. He is not aware, apparently, that the flag represented what Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America described as a "government ... founded upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition."

So much for the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush.

Neenah, Wisconsin

Don't Put Up with the Sham

Heard [Jim Hightower] talking on the television this morning and as always pretty much agree with much of what you say. However, (surprise), I have come to suspect that the voting booth is just a sham, created by the powers that be to make us believe that we have some say in the choice. It would appear that by the time you get to the voting booth it makes absolutely no difference in who you choose; all of the candidates have already been bought and paid for by the elite. Once our politicians have been purchased they are displayed in such a way as to present an appetizing platter; unfortunately no matter how nice the presentation, we are still eating the same old bull. Middle America has sold itself into slavery for a pair of Nike Airs, we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by the elitist advertising (read propaganda) and are convinced that if we drive, wear, eat, or drink the right image then we are young, rich and good looking. This is our fault, and this is where the biggest difference can be made. We need to vote with our dollars.

If there were a grass roots movement to boycott companies we could see real differences in the way this country is run. If on a particular day we began, as an economic group, to boycott one department store, one fast food franchise, one discount store, one health insurance group, etc. with the promise that the others were on the docket we would capture the attention of the elitist dictators.

These people don't understand anything other than the bottom line; the only way to get there attention is to affect the bottom line. The only way to accomplish that is grass roots movement of withholding our dollars. Thank you so much for this forum.


McDonald, N.M.

Give Other States a Chance

Art Cullen writes in your Feb. 15 PP that Iowa should always be the first state to elect delegates to the Democratic and Republican national conventions. I disagree. It is inherently unfair to give any particular group of voters more power than any other similarly-sized group of voters.

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution requires that all voters be treated equally. Therefore, the court said, legislative districts had to be equal in population. This was called the "one man, one vote" decision. There was a terrific furor. Congress came close to sending a constitutional amendment on to the states, to reverse the decision. Rural voters, who had more power under the old unequal districts, complained mightily about "one man, one vote" and insisted that society worked better if rural areas were overrepresented in state legislatures.

Under the current system, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have far more political power than the voters of other states do. Iowa and New Hampshire residents get to talk to leading Democratic and Republican presidential contenders. Iowa and New Hampshire voters get to cast very influential votes in primaries. It just plain isn't fair to give the voters of two particular states better treatment than the voters of other states. I advocate a rotating plan that gives every state (or at least every small state) an equal chance to be first or second.

Sincerely yours,

San Francisco, Calif.

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